Before glimpsing a single limestone karst or hidden grotto, the vast majority of travelers who set their sights on spectacular Halong Bay must first buckle in for the long and winding ride from Hanoi to the Bai Chay Wharf.
The road to Halong City passes through the fertile farmlands of the Red River Delta, a remarkable stretch of country that is best appreciated – like anything worth appreciating – when you understand what you’re seeing.
When modern travelers first started overland from Hanoi to Halong in the early 1990s the trip took up to 6 hours and several ferry crossings. Today, guests can shuttle from the office to the gangplank in just under four hours – an empty chunk of time or a chance to soak up prime views of local life and culture.
If ever you return to Halong Bay and are in the mood for a real local experience, public buses also make the journey in about six hours. That’s six hours of thumping trance-techno, interspersed with one or two popular Vietnamese films and a succession of heart-pounding games of chicken with other cars on the road. But for now, you’re making good time on the Emeraude’s roomy shuttle, so sit back and enjoy the ride.
As we come to the outskirts of the capital, the shuttle passes over the Red River on a bridge parallel to the famous Long Bien Bridge – known to the French colonizers as the Paul Doumer Bridge.
One of the most-bombed targets in Vietnam during its tumultuous war with America, the bridge was a vital link to the all-important harbor at Hai Phong, and to China. Some 3,000 Vietnamese worked on the construction of the original bridge, which had been designed by Gustave Eiffel’s architecture company. However, the bridge has been rebuilt so many times the original materials are only visible in certain portions.
When the large highways give way to two-lane streets, one-story houses and small businesses, we are passing through Bac Ninh province. Bac Ninh is one of the oldest centres of Buddhism in Vietnam, and home to Dau Pagoda and But Thap Pagoda – two of the finest pagodas in the country.
Bac Ninh is a largely agricultural province and most of the ‘Quan Ho’ call-and-response folk songs now performed in local festivals were first sung in the rice paddies you see outside the shuttle window.
If you have an eye for these things, you may catch sight of the Chi Linh Star Golf and Country Club. Golf fans may be interested to learn this was the site of the Carlsberg Masters in 2004 and 2005, and is one of the area’s premier courses.
The shuttle makes a short stopover in Dong Trieu, the second province we pass en-route to the bay. The ceramic wares displayed on the sidewalks of Dong Trieu give away the province’s primary trade. Ranging in subject and style from modern sculptures to tiny animals, this is a favorite stop for fans of exotic garden décor. If you see anything you like, the merchants will be happy to ship your purchase to your doorstep back home.
By the time you trade the van for the comfort of your cabin on the Emeraude, you’ll have a pretty good idea of what the occupational options are in this portion of the country, and an even better idea of what Vietnam looked like before consumerism and commercialism – which is, of course, the Vietnam you came to see.